Wednesday, June 14, 2006

Thinking a lot about fiction and its discontents. Producing not very much poetry lately and feeling the gravitational pull of prose. Short stories don't interest me very much, it would have to be a novel. An insane proposition with a dissertation and a wedding and a job hunt all looming. But. The folks behind National Novel Writing Month say you can do it regardless of what's going on in your life. A kind of mental traveling that you slice sixty to ninety minutes out of every day for. But. What are novels for, anyway, in 2006? What can they do that movies and video games and plays and (most especially) TV dramas can't do better? You might say that fiction is still the premiere genre by which we represent inwardness—more specifically, the experience of subjectivity within a given milieu or social moment. But poetry, or at least poetry taken beyond the constraints of the personal lyric, is entirely capable of doing this, superbly. The thing novels have going for them is: people read them. I don't have statistics on hand, but I suspect even the strangest or most marginal novels sell five to ten times more copies than your average poetry book. I think of an especially "poetic" novel that I read and enjoyed many years ago, Mark Richard's Faulknerian fable Fishboy. This debut novel circa 1993 has no plot to speak of, is written in baroque and labyrinthine prose, and features a rather passive boy (well, fishboy) as its hero: it was reprinted at least once and has eleven Amazon reviews. And I think of how Verse Press slyly stamped FICTION on the back of Joe Wenderoth's uproarious book of prose poems, Letters to Wendys, no doubt to the benefit of its sales; at least one of its Amazon reviewers (one of twenty-three!) goes along with the fiction/Fiction by using scare quotes: "This little book full of little 'poems' packs a thunderous punch." Protect your readers from having to read "poems," and they will come and read them.

The guy behind NaNoWriMo, Chris Baty, has written a book based on the concept: No Plot? No Problem! A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days. Now I must admit to being a sucker for this kind of thing: the constraint on time, the imposition of an arbitrary deadline (which is Baty's single brilliant idea), is as satisfying a constraint as a sestina or an abecedarian poem or writing a line of verse for every one of Charles Fourier's personality types. When I was in college I wrote a screenplay with the help of Viki King's How to Write a Movie in 21 Days: The Inner Movie Method (the book makes a cameo appearance in the desk drawer of Tim Robbins' murderous movie executive in The Player); it was a lousy screenplay, Tarantino-lite, but at least I wrote the damn thing and learned a little bit in the process. Baty's idea is basically similar: give yourself permission to write something shitty, and "win" NaNoWriMo by producing a text of 50,000 words or more: no aesthetic judgments shall be rendered. The pursuit of "exuberant imperfection" is undoubtedly liberating, and the book in its chatty and cheerful way presents an eminently sensible formula for launching a big writing project and staying sane: securing support for friends and family, strategies for recovering from slumps, and so on. Content, like quality, is almost beside the point: this can be taken in a spirit of experimentation, or it can present the unappetizing spectacle of an indiscriminate prose factory, especially given the implied constraints of realist fiction (though NaNoWriMo-ers have worked in every conceivable genre). The point of limiting oneself to 50,000 words in one month, after all, is to transform the self-evidently Herculean task of novel-writing into something doable: in other words, it's an at least implicit constraint on ambition. You can read Baty's ambitions in the first of his sample "Magna Cartas": a list of answers to the question, "What, to you, makes a good novel?" It's actually an extremely useful question; here's how Baty answers it:
first-person narration
quirky characters
true love
found objects
feisty old people
strong, charismatic protagonists
improbable romances
smart but unpretentious writing
urban settings
cliffhanger chapter endings
characters who are at turning points in their lives
books set in the workplace
happy endings
To me, this list blares that Baty's aspirations are no higher (and no lower) than to write Nick Hornby novels: entertaining, quirky without ever venturing into the truly maudit or srange, thoroughly middlebrow. An impression confirmed by his second list of "things that bore or depress you in novels." This just isn't as good a question, immediately putting aside an affect, depression, that I associate with a great deal of unquestionably great fiction and prose (Dostoyevsky, W.G. Sebald, Kafka, Nabokov, you name it). But okay: "boring" is at least properly subjective and individual to the writer. Here's what bores and depresses Baty:
irredeemably malicious main characters
books set on farms
mentally ill main characters
food or eating as a central theme
ghosts, monsters, or demons
dysfunctional sibling dramas
books consisting largely of a character's thoughts
weighty moral themes
books set in the nineteenth century
unhappy endings
To each his own, right? But I can't help but feel that Baty's desire to evade some of the elements I associate with great (and to a large degree, modernist) novels means that the entire project of writing 50,000 words in 30 days is itself designed to evade not just "depression," but thinking about fiction and what fiction does well, what it's for, what your fiction might contribute. I am probably here just singling myself out as one of those people who the Frequently Asked Question bar from participating: "People who take their writing (and themselves) very seriously should probably go elsewhere. Everyone else, though, is warmly welcomed." To which I say, two cheers for democracy! Two cheers for the organizers' thinking behind NaNoWriMo as an opportunity to extend "the glow from making big, messy art, and watching others make big, messy art" to the multitude. But doesn't the emphasis there shift from writing to having written? Isn't the thirty days a kind of endurance trial, a pleasure of renunciation as much as it is of excess? What about literature, goddamnit? Baty's book and the NaNoWriMo site can't answer these questions. They can't help me understand what writing fiction might feel like and how it might change me.

For what it's worth, my own personal Magna Carta: what, to me, makes a good novel, even though it can't answer the larger question of what novels are good for:

witty and graceful prose
intelligent but flawed characters
an immersive and believable world
news I can use about how people behave
memorable images
memorable sentences
short and dense or long and airy
conversations about ideas
hanging out with likable characters
learning something about a trade, a culture, an area
weighty moral themes

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